Category Archives: Ghana

Innumeracy and the business of farming


I returned to Tamale in northern Ghana to continue working with the Yemyoliya Farmers’ Cooperative.  Previously I had spent two weeks last August training the co-op leaders on the basics of management, leadership, and marketing.  This time my assignment was designed to cover the business aspects of farming as well as lessons on how to write a winning proposal.

Teaching illiterate farmers proposal writing – – or writing of any kind – – was, sad to say, beyond my capability.  Even the literate ones would need a business writing course in order to craft a winning proposal; there were no strong writers among them.  But all of them were capable of learning how to deliver a compelling proposal verbally.  Consequently, I focused the lesson on delivering a spoken proposal: concisely covering a limited number of categories essential to the proposal audience.

We identified a target audience, the Ministry of Agriculture. And we developed our request – – the loan of four tractors to the co-op to improve their plowing capability.   Our verbal proposal contained just six key topics: 1) background/problem, 2) proposed solution, 3) timing, 4) goals, 5) the co-op’s capabilities, and 6) cost benefit analysis.  Now they will approach the Ministry with their appeal.

Try it yourself.  Maybe you can convince your spouse to buy you that new car for Valentine’s Day. Or you might end up with four tractors – – but those can be useful too.

The farming season (plowing, planting, growing, and harvesting) runs from March to November and the farmers are busy sunrise to sunset.  But after harvest during the dry season, December to February, they have not much to do.  Perhaps they spend a bit of time patching the grass roof on their home, maybe tune up their bicycle…but not much else.  They are so busy during farming that funerals are often postponed until the dry season. So funeral attendance takes up some slack time, but still they feel they are too idle.

They asked if I would work with them on ways to productively fill the dry season.   I shared ideas I had picked up from my work with other co-ops: assist their villages to repair roads washed out by the wet season rains, repair community buildings, volunteer in schools, churches, mosques.  Collectively we identified a range of activities that could earn money (work on construction jobs), enhance personal development (take literacy classes), or provide social services (volunteer to help the elderly.)  I suppose I will find out how they filled their idle period the next time I return to northern Ghana.

The co-op members are all farmers…farmers who seek to be businessmen and businesswomen.  Farmers grow and harvest their crops.  Businesspeople sell their crops for a profit so that they can support their families.  Creating an income statement is a basic way to determine if one has earned a profit.

We created a farming income statement format for each participant to complete with his or her actual farming information.  Simply put, Revenue minus Costs = Profit.  This was a new concept for the aspiring businessmen.

Their revenue was driven by the number of acres planted, the yield per acre, and the price received for each crop.  Their costs resulted from what they paid to plow their fields, purchase seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides. (Not everyone is organic….as much as we would like them to be.)  Costs also included the farm loan most of them need to take each year before plowing and to repay after harvest. The interest rate on such a loan is a whopping 30%.

The typical farmer in my group earned an annual profit of $500.  But this assumes they did the math correctly.  Illiteracy and innumeracy run had in hand.  One farmer used his cell phone to calculate 3 x 200 = 600.  I asked him the result of his calculation and he replied, “Six million.”  I suppose that is one way to turn a quick profit.

I arrived at my assignment site during the dry season.  This is the hottest time of year, approaching 100 degrees most days.  But the heat is not the main climatic challenge.  Winds from the north bring a fine grit of reddish tan sand from the Sahara 500 miles away, as the sand flies. These HARMATTAN winds stir up enough dust to play havoc with flight schedules.

The Tamale regional airport was closed due to airborne dust for nearly three weeks in December, but had reopened by my mid January arrival. On my scheduled departure day, another HARMATTAN wind shut it down again, necessitating a twelve hour road trip from the north of Ghana to the international airport in the far south: a forced, but enjoyable overland tour of much of the country.

Climate change skeptics should come here and ask the farmers how the seasons have changed: rains arrive later, stop earlier, are much more fickle and unpredictable.  Desertification in the north allows the Sahara to creep inexorably south, delivering more HARMATTAN-carried dust and grit over their villages and into their fields.

In the developed world climate change is a charged political topic.  In poor countries it is another life challenge to cope with. The farmers here won’t or don’t make the connection between human caused climate change and their situation, but they are living the change every day.


Just before training began a clearly nursing mother with three little kids in tow walked into the classroom.  My NGO colleagues chased the goats out by throwing rocks at them.  Later I caught another goat eating a book.  And then training began.

Our classroom was an open sided carport that we shared with two very dirty non-operational motorcycles.  I taught the executive team of Yemyoliya Farmers’ Cooperative three topics: management, leadership, and marketing.  Yemyoliya means spreading knowledge and that is what I was trying to do.

I taught in English to 15 senior executives of the co-op. Many of them understood much of what I said. But of course the goal was for all of them to understand all of what I said.  To get closer to that goal, Mahama Alhassan, my co-op counterpart, translated into Dagbani, the local tongue and one of the 56 languages spoken in Ghana.  Just so you know, the G in Dagbani is silent but serves to make the subsequent B “plosive.”  Whatever that means.  Linguists please weigh in here.

This was my third trip to Ghana, each time has been to a different region and thus a different language.  This time to Tamale (Ta-ma-LAY), the capital of Ghana’s Northern Region.  Not to brag, but I am pretty much fluent in all three languages I have encountered here – – at least as far as good morning, please, and thank you are concerned.  Except for the first two languages which I have long since forgotten.

In order to learn and remember I suggested to my class that they take notes.  But not everyone took notes and I thought this was a bad sign, of say, indifference to learning or antipathy toward the instructor.  But later, on the daily sign in sheet, I noticed that several had signed in using a thumbprint not a signature.  They were illiterate and note taking was not in their repertoire of skills.

I offered one lesson bloc on problem solving.  (First ensure that the stated problem is the real problem.  For example, it would be foolish to try to solve lack of note taking when the real problem was illiteracy.)  At the end of this bloc many in the audience asked me to solve their problems.  I generally was able to turn the queries back to the assembled class for them to resolve.  Examples:

  • Q: What should I do when the treasurer refuses to collect dues? A: Get another treasurer.
  • Q: Can we exclude a troublesome person from meetings?  A: Not if his presence is essential.

I never walked in the street.  Tamale has a population approaching one million and its traffic is Africanesque, which is to say, the traffic is thick and fast and pedestrians have no rights. But I am not sure I was any safer on the sidewalk. Bicycles and motorcycles often chose the sidewalk because they too feared the cars. Anyway I never got hit – – which was a good thing because the doctors were on strike the entire time I was in Ghana.  Hospital emergency rooms were shuttered.

At the completion of my assignment I decided to visit a neighboring country. The bus to Cotonou, the commercial capital of the small West African country of Benin, took twelve hours.  Just as the bus started to move an itinerant preacher stood up in the aisle and, with a bus company supplied microphone, began to deliver a Christian sermon.  I am uncertain how the non-Christians on the bus – – and there were plenty of Muslims and a few Hindus on board – – felt about this. But such spontaneous sermonizing is relatively commonplace in Ghana.

Imagine in the US if someone took an over-amped mike on the Greyhound and spent the first twenty five minutes of the journey delivering a sermon to a truly captive audience?  But apparently many appreciated this unexpected Saturday morning sermon. “Hallelujahs” punctuated his presentation and I observed many willing contributions to the passed collection envelope. I doubt many knew which church he represented (if any) and who might benefit from their tithe (other than perhaps the preacher himself.)

My fellow travelers and I were also a captive audience for the blaring television which hung from the bus ceiling. We had several hours of Nigerian soap operas forced upon us, then over the last four hours of our journey we were entertained by a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown marathon.  Over four nonstop hours I witnessed every hold and throw known to the WWF: full nelson, airplane spin, double knee facebreaker, gorilla press gut buster, pump handle fallaway slam, dragon screw legwhip, chickenwing over the shoulder crossface, rope hung figure-four armlock.  I am not making this up.

There were body slam flips off the top rope.  Folding chairs were smashed into backs and heads.    Men fought men, wrestlers fought spectators, spectators fought referees, women fought women, and women even fought men. And thanks to four straight hours, I will never need to watch Smackdown again.

In retrospect the forced sermon wasn’t so bad.  It was shorter and a lot less violent.

Taa paya.  Thank you.

The Bribe: to pay or not to pay

I finished my assignment in Wa one week ago. My client, Antika Company, had asked for my help in business planning, marketing, and organizational improvement. I took a stab at all three. For example, one of the basic tenets of sound marketing is to portray consistency in all company images. I discovered that the company had its name painted in three separate spots on its building. Each of the three spots showed a different name, all somewhat similar, but different nonetheless. We consistency hounds do not approve of this. So for the cost of a bucket of paint and a local sign painter, Antika Company can fix its consistency problem.

I also spent time working with Antika to select one person to consolidate their financial reporting. At present three different individuals use a mix of manual ledgers and Quickbooks, struggling to track their business results. Like in marketing, consistency in record keeping is essential. But enough business talk for now.

I had a bit of free time on my final Sunday there so I walked to WaNa, the mostly ruined former palace of the traditional chief. While not a UNESCO World Heritage site, nor even at the level of a state park, it was interesting enough to warrant a few photos.

And apparently I was interesting enough to attract the attention of a nearby policeman, hungry for cash. He came up from behind, stepped around in front, put his hand on my camera, and demanded that I release it. I complied and then followed him to a small seating area a few yards away. He began to berate me for knowingly breaking the law.

“You know you cannot take pictures of buildings in Ghana without permission!”

I knew better and I told him so. “No, I have been to Ghana before. I traveled all over the country and there is no restriction on taking photos of tourist sites.”

He said, “In your country you can’t just take a picture of the White House or of Obama.”

“Actually, that is perfectly legal to do.”

“No it isn’t. The US, the UK, and Ghana all have the same constitution and it is not permitted.”

At this point I realized I was not in a rational discussion. Consequently, I offered to delete the offending shots.

“No, he said, “we must take you and your camera to the central police station because you don’t respect my uniform.” Clearly his goal was to extract a bribe. In principal I prefer to avoid paying bribes. So, I elected to play my trump card.

“I respect your uniform very much. I was a Captain in the US Army and I respect all men in uniform.”

He seemed a bit awestruck when he responded, “Oh, you were a captain?”

At this point I thought of strutting around a bit, but decided that would be overkill.
“Yes, but now I am doing volunteer business work to help your country.”

“Oh, then please just delete the photos and everything will be alright.”

Bribe avoided, but pictures deleted.

Then he said I could go back to the palace and re-photograph.

Lesson: Never mess with a (former) Captain in the US Army.

Postscript: He deferentially accompanied me back to the palace and showed me around. I am pretty sure that palace tours are not an approved role for the uniformed police force. And his knowledge of the palace was extremely limited. Then he asked if I could give him a small tip. He willing accepted the $2 I offered.

So in the end did I pay the bribe? Or did I give a tip to a nice policeman who showed me around? You decide.

As usual I tacked on a few days post assignment to see some nearby sights. I selected next door Togo where I found the small town of Kpalime (silent K) to be an ideal spot for R and R. Kpalime is a typical African trading and market town with an interesting overlay of artisanal crafts shops, wannabe guides, rastas (usually offering drumming lessons), aging western hippies, one Goth, and other assorted misfits. (Apologies to my hippie and Goth friends.)

I found a legitimate guide, Jerome, to take me on a six hour trek through the hills and forests a few miles outside of town. We passed the ruined German colonial capital – – Germany, after their second place finish in WW1, relinquished their West African colonies to France and Britain. We hiked past small fields tucked into the jungle, visiting patches of cola nuts (a prime ingredient in Coca Cola…not counting sugar and water of course), cacao (chocolate), coffee, yams, cassava (tapioca), and palm nuts (palm oil).

Electric colored butterflies flooded around us. We stopped for lunch near a natural pool and waterfall where I took a refreshing plunge to wash off several hours of jungle sweat.

Jerome pointed out various rainforest plants used for traditional healing and for natural dyes. For example, the indigo leaf to make a midnight blue, in fact so midnight that it looked black to my inartistic eye. We also passed a few fields with voodoo symbols warning people not to steal crops at the risk of angering a giant snake that would materialize if a thief should enter the field. I am not a thief and I saw no snake.

As a result of this trek I have now become an accomplished jungle guide myself. Anyone who would like me to lead you though the rainforest on my next assignment, kindly get in touch. The only catch: you will have to pay the bribes.

A Fine Selection of Porridge

I am mid way through a two week assignment in Ghana. Before I tell you about it, we must first locate Ghana. Find the equator, move towards the West African coast. Keep looking up, the equator passes just beneath Ghana on the southern bulge of West Africa. But, do not confuse Ghana with nearby Guinea, nor with Guinea Bissau or even with Equatorial Guinea – – both are in the neighborhood. Or for that matter with Guyana and Guyane – – for those two countries you would be on the wrong continent – – they lie in South America. It seems there is a whole family of homophonic G-countries. But I digress.

I am working with Antika Company, a small farming inputs supplier. My client provides fertilizer, pesticides, and grain seed to farmers in Ghana’s Upper West Region (A region is equivalent to a U.S. state.) Antika helps farmers in its region improve crop yields. And the company hopes to reach more farmers. Consequently my assignment is to help Antika develop a growth plan with special emphasis on marketing.

They have no marketing and sales personnel. The company accountant doubles in these crucial functions. A by-the-books accountant’s brain is not the natural home of a creative marketing mind. Nor is a typically introverted accountant a prime choice to fit an extroverted salesman profile. But the company is doing well, so something is working…nevertheless there is ample room for improvement and that will be my goal.

Antika is located in Wa, a town of about 50,000 people in the far northwest corner of the country. The local language is Wali, a relatively minor language in Ghana’s pool of 70 languages and dialects. (36% of Ghanaians speak English.)

Ghana is one of Africa’s rising stars: a stable democracy with a growing economy. Nevertheless, it is not yet a wealthy place. GDP/capita ranks 142nd out of 193 countries in the UN. Its GDP/capita is $3,100 vs. $48,000 in the U.S. Ghana is slightly smaller than Oregon with a population about the same as Texas, 25 million. The various religions here get along with one another very well, there are no evident signs of strife. (69% Christian, 16% Muslim, 15% all other including traditional African religions.)

I saw a current Gallup poll that ranked Ghana as the most religious country in the world. I already had deduced this by observing business and shop signs around the country. Here are a few examples:

• God’s Way Metal Works
• Finger of God Communications
• God Is Love Car Air Conditioning
• Hallelujah Ventures
• Mother Mary Full Of Grace Palm Oil
• God Is in Control Cold Storage, and they compete with…
• …God Is Able Cold Storage
• God Has It Made Convenience Store
• Remember Your Creator Weaving Thread
• and a bar, improbably named, In God We Trust New Jersey Spot

And not to short shrift the local Muslim community:

• Allah Alone Is The Healer Herbal Center
• Peace Allah Trucking

Eight years ago my kids and I visited Ghana. Local people used a variety of friendly terms to address me: Mr. White, Big guy, Papa, Mon Pere, Dad, and Granddad (I think it is a term of respect and not a physical description…especially not eight years ago.) They also called me Obroni ,white man, in Twi, Ghana’s primary indigenous language. This time only Obroni has been repeated and Nasara has been added. Nasara is the Wali term for white man. Some things never change.

And finally a word about the diverse food choices here in Wa. Ghanaians select from one of four traditional starch dishes. First there is TZ, a thick corn porridge eaten with one’s fingers. Or we could choose Banku, a thick fermented corn porridge eaten with the fingers. And if these two are inadequately diverse, we can try Kenkey a thick fermented corn porridge steamed in corn husks, then eaten with the fingers. Too much corn? OK, try Fufu a thick cassava porridge eaten with the fingers. You may have already concluded the good news: we have no shortage of thick porridge here in Wa.